Last month, I was talking with some friends about the joys and tribulations of traveling with the kids. As a single dad, I have done my share of jet-setting with kids in tow, so I felt free to impart my wisdom. Out of that conversation came a list of 10 tips for taking the stress out of family travel. Here they are.
1. Involve the kids. Your ideal vacation may not be what your children have in mind. It's a good idea to get the kids' input at the very start of the planning process so they will have a stake in making things go right. Above all, make sure everyone is on board with the destination. European opera houses? Wait for your 50th anniversary!
2. Do your homework. The better your grasp on where you are going and what you want to do there, the more enjoyable the experience will be. You don't need an itinerary carved in stone, but you really must have an outline. The Web is a great place to get up-to-date information, as are travel guidebooks. If you work with a travel professional, pick his or her brain; a good agent may have a better idea of what you want than you do.
3. Build in some downtime. Flexibility is the key when traveling with kids. Everyone will have a better time if each has a chance to do his own thing, whether it's reading a book or hitting the beach. "Alone time" is greatly underrated in family travel planning, as is "grown-up time," so take advantage of a kids-only movie night to share a special dinner with your special someone.
4. Watch your budget. It's easy to overspend while on vacation, but by keeping an eye out for incentives, discounts and other special deals, you can have a great time for less. Let your travel professional know of any special events or celebrations you want to include to make your trip more special.
5. Book smarter. Traveling in the off-season (or the almost off-season) can help rein in those costs and keep the crowds down. (If you make your escape during school time, remember to get a homework pack for the kids.) Also ask your travel pro to keep an eye out for family-friendly specials, which often are not advertised to the general public. These "agent-only" specials cross my desk many times a week.
6. Lose the crowd. If you vacation at a busy time, look for ways to avoid the worst of the crowds. Here's a trick: Go left when you enter a national park, museum or other crowded venue -- most people will go right. And go deep -- most visitors stop at the first thing they see. This strategy also works very well in the grocery store!
7. Honor your elders. Older folks like the chance to be kids, too, so why not see if Grandmom or Grandpop wants to tag along, or even foot part of the bill. It is a fantastic opportunity for children to connect with an older generation and learn a little about times gone by. Reality check: This year's college freshmen do not recall a U.S. president before Bill Clinton.
8. Expect the unexpected. I wish I could say that every vacation goes off without a hitch. But the truth is that very few do. The plane is late, someone left the oven on, your room is not ready, someone gets ill, the rental car gets a flat tire, the guy sitting next to you really smells. To help with the rough patches, bring along some activity packs for everyone (adults can be just as whiny and miserable as kids, if not more so). Also, if you are investing a lot of money in your vacation and don't want to lose it all, protect it with travel insurance.
9. Reap your reward. If you are traveling with your kids, you might as well seek out reward programs that fit your family's lifestyle. No sense in accumulating points to buy business class airfare when what you want are free sodas, a souvenir T-shirt and a chance to meet Cinderella. For example, Disney has a flexible rewards credit card, the Disney Rewards Visa Card from Chase, which provides interest-free financing when you book your Disney vacation or cruise with the card, as well as all kinds of benefits to families planning a Disney vacation. You can earn rewards on everyday spending that are good toward theme park tickets, hotel stays, Disney DVDs, merchandise and other special discounts and perks that you can use while on your vacation. If you have kids and a Disney vacation is on the horizon, this is the credit card for you.
10. Get a passport. It will be required for any foreign travel. Besides, it is the ultimate identification and it is valid for 10 years (five years for kids under 16). Do it now. Not gonna say any more. Rant over.
So, there you have it. Now go to work, plan out that perfect family vacation and call your travel professional. And, oh yeah, tell the kids!